Thursday, November 8, 2012

The power of motherhood was dramatically shown here at the Hermitage recently when two Muscovy mothers hatched their broods and then lost them.

One stands sentinel near the shed where she had sat on her eggs for week after week, leaving only once a day, briefly, for food and water, until they hatched, seven of them. And I took four of them away from her. She hissed and flew at me to keep me away. It was all she could do and it wasn’t enough. I took the four precious yellow, fuzz-covered ducklings and put them under a heat lamp. They’re still living, bigger each day. And they will stay indoors until their feathers come out and they’ll be able to survive on their own. I didn’t take all of them because that would have hurt her too much, such loss after so much preparation, so much loving care for her babies, keeping them warm with down plucked from her breast and with the gentle heat from her body activating the precious chemicals in each egg to create life. I knew she would lose them but, as I said, I couldn’t take all of her babies. And lose them, she did.

Something came in the dark, as I knew it would, probably a fox, maybe an opossum or a badger. It would have come quietly, slowly, and I’m sure the mother duck was aware of it. She was always on the alert, always making sure her babies were safe. But once the predator actually attacked, there was no way she could defend her children or even herself. She had no claws, no teeth, all she could do was scream with her babies as they were taken away to be eaten alive, a grotesque end for such pure, innocent beauty.

Now she watches daily, as I said, looking for her babies that will never return. Finally, she will return to the flock by the pond and, hopefully, next year will try again. Thankfully we have four of her babies though she will never know that.

It was the night of Hurricane Sandy. The wind was howling and the rain was horizontal. And there they were, right by the chicken yard, I couldn’t believe it, a mother duck and her newly-hatched babies, all looking lost and bewildered, even the mother. Why, on this night of all nights, did her babies have to hatch out? But there they were, six this time. I quickly swept four of them into a bucket and brought them indoors, placing them under the same heat lamp with the others.

The next morning, the two baby ducklings were still living, sitting under their mother who covered them with her body from the still-falling rain. But it was cold and damp, not good conditions for freshly-hatched babies. The following morning I returned to the Hermitage and saw the mother standing sentinel beside a lifeless form, her one remaining baby was dead, the life sucked out of its fragile body by cold and damp. The mother just stood there as though waiting long enough would bring it back to life. It broke my heart as I picked up the lifeless form and took it away. The mother just watched me leave with her baby. There was nothing else she could do. She stood there for the longest time. She also doesn’t know that four of her babies live. How can I tell her? How can I let her know that all those weeks were not in vain? That life from her body remains? No, she will never know. But I know. And her children live.